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Fifth Row Center

Fifth Row Center

Are your people excited by each new workday?

By Michael O’Malley & William F. Baker

 

Michael O’Malley is a social psychologist and vice president at Sibson Consulting. William F. Baker directs the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Education, and Public Policy at Fordham University. They are co-authors of Leading With Kindness. Adapted from Every Leader Is an Artist: How the World’s Greatest Artists Can Make You a More Creative Leader (McGraw-Hill). ©2012

It usually is the case that the best plays are the hardest to get into because more people want tickets. You feel pretty good if you are fortunate enough to be one of the lucky few. The same holds in business. A part of the excitement is getting into a place you perceive as highly desirable. In this regard, plays and business have two things in common.

First, there is substantial self-selection. The people who want in are those who are attracted to what the ostensive offering is and are not just hunting for a seat or a job. Well, that’s the way it should be. Companies that offer something of value will lure people who are looking for more than just something to do for a few hours each day, as a playgoer is looking for more than a place to sit—besides, there are more comfortable seats elsewhere.

Second, there is a screening process that determines who will be included or excluded from entry, and it works two ways. Although an employee may meet the selection criteria and want to join for the right reasons, it is possible he or she will decline the offer because the company hasn’t provided the precise job he or she wanted (seating is too far up and away from the stage), or it can’t meet logistical concerns (for example, being unable to accommodate family-related matters). On the other hand, in business, people may be turned down because they don’t fit the profile of someone who will succeed (they aren’t going to enjoy the show) and will spend their time fidgeting until they reluctantly wait for the end or sneak out at intermission.

The point is that focus begins well in advance of formally becoming an employee through the promotion of what a company uniquely has to offer and the selection process that explores mutual interests and fit.

Anticipatory Excitement

We have spent enough time on trains into New York on matinee days for Broadway shows to have noticed the barely restrained excitement of those, finely dressed, heading for the theater. It is a very revealing contrast to the businesspeople who are far less eager and, most often, half asleep.

The anticipation often is enhanced by a preparatory hook such as an advertisement that plants an idea that is difficult to get out of one’s head about the future encounter. For a musical, it can be a song that one is familiar with and enjoys singing in the shower—the thought of seeing it performed live by a professional on stage, fully clothed, is a scintillating expectation.

A business cannot produce the same anticipatory pleasures every day, of course. But there should occasionally be hints that something exciting will take place. This could be news of the start of a fresh, promising project, the development and introduction of a new product, the prospect of international travel and exposure to a new line of business, or awareness of a forthcoming assignment in which one will use abilities that are rewarding to exercise. There are only so many times you can make the same trip to the same playhouse before the thrill wears off, unless the artistic director changes the show every now and then.

Those who are eager to get to their destination, theatergoers and businessgoers alike, have something they believe is a worthwhile place at which to arrive. But new employee or old, premier businesses, including arts organizations, actively regulate the anticipatory process and reinforce the excitement once people are on the premises. One easy way to achieve this end is by knowing that people are on their way and caring once they are there. We can recount many horror stories of employees’ first days in which no one knew of the worker’s arrival or even knew the person’s name. (“I’m sorry—who are you again?”) Unfortunately, this example always seems to remain current. Just when we think it is trite and are reluctant to use it, someone regales us with a recent misadventure. It is a telling experience that employees should seriously take note of.

Good organizations think their employees are special and are pleased that they have elected to join the company. They can demonstrate this delight on an ongoing basis through simple gestures such as creating attractive employee-only entranceways (not passageways used for deliveries), making accommodations for basic personal needs such as a place to stow a purse or nurse a baby, and taking the time for occasional remembrances such as birthdays and anniversaries pegged to hiring dates. Such forms of concern also imply that someone is attentive to a person’s ability to enjoy the show or, in the case of business, be productive. Is the person comfortable? Are the surroundings conducive to enterprise? Does the individual have the tools needed to perform? Does he or she require any special accommodations in order to continue to perform well?

Some companies we have encountered have morning or periodic rituals in which they pay respect to groups that otherwise get little attention and feel neglected. These may be the people who, out of sight from the core office dwellers, go out on the road every day to fix equipment; the back-office workers who silently copy, deliver, scan, stock, and file; or others such as the maintenance crew who are relegated to working under fluorescent lighting in the “garden level” of the office complex.

The theater only differentiates with seating arrangements, but otherwise both businesses and playhouses are thankful that everyone is there and, most notably, will come back. The theater wants lifelong patronage as much as companies and employees want generative lifelong employment. To achieve that, everyone must feel welcome. It takes some guts to deviate from strict business protocols, but we once advocated formal ceremonies in which truck mechanics periodically were given tools to recognize their service and expertise, and we recommended a book parade for book stackers who worked in cavernous conditions to thank them for their unseen contributions to a major institutional library. Offbeat? Yes. Effective? Yes. Fun? Yes.

Setting Daily Expectations

Some companies start the day with the equivalent of handing out theater programs, letting employees know what they can expect, who will be involved, what is the anticipated resolution—holding informative team meetings so that everyone knows what needs to be accomplished that day in the service of more distal goals.

But most companies want people to just get busy. If everyone is engaged in simple repetitive tasks, then getting busy is easy enough, but that sort of work environment is unlikely to excite or produce anything out of the ordinary. Thus, “setting the stage” is critical in shaping people’s daily outlook and is essential in preparing them for what is important and what is not, what to spend time on and what to forgo. The idea is to spend a little time creating focused activities. Measure twice, cut once, and save time in the long run.

Framing the Action

One definition of both art and leadership is “the distillation of chaos.” It is an ability to choose the essential for presentation and eliminate the distractions. The ultimate action of a company must carefully and narrowly engage employees’ attention in order to obtain results. This is tough to accomplish, since words alone won’t sustain focus. This is where a leader could use some original thinking. In the theater, there are conventions for illuminating spaces and directing attention through props, motion, stage setting, and so forth.

How can you achieve the same effects in an organization? Each organization will answer this question differently and will adopt a unique way to define the contours of its action. To us, the question of focus extends well beyond the customary verbal articulations. The broader issue pertains to the best ways to maintain focus on a regular basis and keep the action tightly packed around behaviors of central concern. The conundrum of focus is how to regulate concerted attention without always having to tell people expressly what they should think or how they should be spending their time. The constant repetition infantilizes and irritates adults, who soon become habituated to the sole use of verbal messages. Besides, absent other signs, the progenitors of recycled words and slogans often mistake their articulations as embodiments for real progress.

We would instead recommend more elaborate staging in each leader’s respective area that avails itself of all senses to make a recurring point of where employees should concentrate their efforts. We can’t say that we have seen companies produce a focused show very frequently, but theatrical devices are at your disposal.

For example, we are presently working with the mortgage service center of a bank. The center’s primary job is to keep people from being foreclosed upon—i.e., keep people in their homes. The company could film the gratitude that customers feel when their home is preserved and their lives are literally saved. It could have a light flash on when a loan is successfully restructured. Or as we once did within a call center, the company could select a call of the week in which an employee did an exceptional job and sit in the round and listen to and, subsequently, discuss the conversation. The employee gets well-earned attention, and others present get the point. If you use your imagination, then you can maintain a much sharper focus at work. The main obstacle is fear of what others who are less “businesslike” will think.

Maintaining Focus

Quite a few distractions can interfere with corporate focus. Not everything goes as planned, and it is easy to dwell on all the things that have gone wrong instead of on what the workforce could be doing right to move ahead. Leaders can easily lose the focus of their teams if they allow past failures to dominate their mental states. We believe it was Michael Jordan who placed a self-imposed one-hour time limit to reflect on a game before once again turning his attention toward the future.

Katherine Hays, a former rower and now CEO of the visual-effects company GenArts, makes the point that leaders can’t be distracted by the fact that they may be a little behind. Or, conversely, teams can’t spend too much time congratulating themselves for something well done.

The idea of both Jordan and Hays is that if you want to be successful over the long haul, you can certainly notice where you are and how things are going, but you also must quickly put the past behind you in order to immerse your team once again in what it can do better and what it has to do next.

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The Conference Board

From the Archives

From
The Conference Board

From the Archives

The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.